March 25, 2004 | Broadcast

The Early Show

Mr. JAMES WOOLSEY (Former CIA Director): Good to be with you.

SMITH: From watching over the past two days, it’s been so interesting just to try to wade through all of this information. And one of the things I want to concentrate on first is, according to the Clinton administration officials, it was clear to them they wanted Osama bin Laden dead. Now they started tracking him–the CIA started tracking him in a serious way back in 1996. Do you think there was a disconnect between the Clinton administration and the CIA?

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, there’s a difference between their wanting him dead and their making specific and concrete and effective plans to kill him. As nearly as I can tell, the only time they even sort of tried to do that was the launch of the cruise missiles against the camps in Afghanistan in 1998. The CIA, because of the executive order banning assassinations from 1975, which is still in effect, is extraordinarily reluctant to move to try to kill anybody, ex–although one could try to grab bin Laden, and if he died in a gunfight or something, that would have been within the authority that they had presumably at the time. But if they wanted, you know, real paramilitary raids to go in and try to kill him, either with military forces, Special forces or with CIA people, the White House had to actually order that and go through it and plan the scenario and decide to do it, and I don’t see anywhere in this that they actually tried to do that.

SMITH: Because just listening to the testimony yesterday, it seemed like the head understood one thing and the actual body parts were–they were not in accord.

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, the president–President Clinton really regarded terrorism for almost all of his administration, I think, as a law enforcement problem. The idea was to go find the terrorists who had done something wrong, grab them, bring them back, bring them to justice. That was–that was the phrase. And they did try the strike in 1998…

SMITH: Right.

Mr. WOOLSEY: …against the camps. But if you want your military to put its Special Forces together and go in and work with Northern Alliance, with Massoud in Afghanistan, to figure out a kidnap or attack plan on bin Laden, or you want the CIA paramilitary people to do the same thing, you’ve got to get people around the table, plan it and do it. You can’t just sort of sign a piece of paper…

SMITH: Yeah.

Mr. WOOLSEY: …and assume that the CIA is gonna go off and–and start–with guns blazing. That’s–that’s not the way it works.

SMITH: Listening to the Clinton administration people, they said they understood the gravity of the terrorism threat because the numerous attacks against different American targets. In the transfer of power, listening to Clarke yesterday, he said the Bush administration understood that it was important, but not urgent. How did that ring to you?

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, I think Deputy Secretary of State Armitage effectively refuted Dick Clarke on that. He said that from early in the administration, I think March or so anyway, they were planning to eliminate al-Qaida. Clarke, in his background briefing to the press, back when he was in the government, said that the–the new administration was planning to eliminate. Then yesterday he said, ‘Well, they weren’t really planning to eliminate until September.’ And then Armitage refuted that. So it depends on whom you believe. On this one, I’m–I’m inclined to think Armitage is calling it right.

SMITH: Just very quickly, is this an exercise in futility or are we gonna really learn something out of all of this?

Mr. WOOLSEY: I think we’ll learn something. There’ll be a lot of political back and forth and blame spreading. I think it’s important to realize the Bush administration only had seven and a half months here…

SMITH: Right.

Mr. WOOLSEY: …and the way we run transitions these days, your officials aren’t really on board until the fall or so of your first year.

SMITH: All right.

Mr. WOOLSEY: All the FBI checks, all the confirmations.

SMITH: Understood.

Mr. WOOLSEY: So I’m inclined to think they–they worked as hard as…

SMITH: As they could.

Mr. WOOLSEY: …it’s reasonable to assume they would have…

SMITH: James Woolsey, thank you.